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John McKnight


Wicked Issues For Neighborhood Leaders and Organizers (Learning Twelve)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Most effective people acting as neighborhood organizers or leaders have a primary value of maximizing participation – more people means more power to advocate and create. This places a high value on community questions that unify rather than divide.

In the Alinsky model of neighborhood organizing, the questions focused on have been mainly about the inadequacies of outside institutions, for example, local government, schools, merchants, etc. The neighborhood’s common perception of these inadequacies maximizes the participation of residents. In the lingo of Alinkyism, the organization grows powerful as a common external ‘enemy’ is identified.

While external institutions are frequently a problem, there are also many questions within the neighborhood where collective resident action would be required to resolve them. It is these internal questions that many leaders and organizers understand as divisive rather than inclusive. Some of the most common issues with divisive possibilities include child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual predators and abortion, etc. Each of these questions is a major issue in the lives of local residents although they tend to be publically invisible. Whenever residents raise these issues, most organizers and leaders recognize their divisive potential and typically engage strategies that sidestep them.

In one sense, there are visible and invisible issues in a neighborhood. Those typically acted upon are the visible, external and internal problems. However, is a role for neighborhood organizers and leaders to make visible the kinds of issues described above? Is there a way for these kinds of issues to be raised so that they do not reduce the participation of local residents in civic life?

Several years ago, as I drove through a small Wisconsin town, I noticed on one block that the same signs were posted in many of the yards. The signs said, “There is No Room for Domestic Abuse on This Block.” I wondered whether these signs were the results of a few concerned individuals on the block or the result of an initiative from some local association or institution. Certainly, the signs made visible the invisible and would have affected the consciousness of many people in the neighborhood who were not on the block. One wonders whether the signs stimulated discussions in families, other blocks or neighborhood and community organizations. What kind of community discussions might

build upon the visibility of an issue that was once discussed only behind closed doors? In practice, the typical public response to these wicked issues is to place them in the domain of professionals – certified people who have expertise in child abuse, domestic abuse, etc. Could it be that this professionalization of issues removes citizens as critical actors in dealing with the problem? Could it be that a collectively energized local citizen could have more real impact on the issue than the professional interventions?

Another question with great divisive potential is whether neighborhood civic associations should endorse particular candidates. It is customary that local groups might hold forums involving all candidates in order to inform their constituency about the choices. However, when local activist citizens attempt to get a local association to endorse a particular candidate, they are likely to be told that the local organization is not-for-profit and cannot legally endorse candidates, or that the association is non- partisan. These responses preclude a discussion of the comparative relevance of the positions of the two candidates in terms of significant community issues. Could it be that a discussion of the impact of these candidate’s differing positions as they affect the neighborhood, is a critical civic function? And, what use is a discussion about community impacts of the various candidacies without the ability of the group to select the one whose positions are most congruent with the association’s goals? In many localities, the candidacy question is redirected to those local associations that are political parties or activist groups. Therefore, the vital citizen role of making associational decisions about potential officials who will vitally affect the neighborhood’s life is precluded. However, the unity of the civic association is enhanced.

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Putting Associations Back in Public Education (Learning Eleven)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

The asset-based community development process identifies five basic community building resources that exist in almost every neighborhood. These resources are:

  1. Capacities of individuals
  2. Associations
  3. Institutions (four profit, not-for –profit, government)
  4. Physical environment
  5. Exchange

The first three assets represent human learning resources in addition to their other attributes. There are numerous neighborhoods organized to identify the knowledge of local residents as learning resources. However, almost none have understood the potential of associations as learning resources.

A study of local associations was conducted in the small town of Spring Green, WI, entitled A Study of the Community Benefits Provided by Local Associations (2013). The actual questionnaire for the study, is the Spring Green Study Questionnaire. Item C-2 on the questionnaire asks, “What are the major benefits your members get from your association?” Of the 62 associational leaders interviewed, 20 answered that “learning” was the major benefit their members acquired. Therefore, the associational life of the community was identified as an educational resource in a third of the cases.

Reviewing the 62 associations, the following 23 can be identified as learning sites: Bloomin Buddies Garden Club – gardening
Friends of Governor Dodge State Park – environment and ecology
Friends of the Lower Wisconsin Riverway – environment and ecology

Friends of the Spring Green Library – literature
Green Squared Building Association – energy efficiency
Habitat for Humanity – construction methods
Mew Haven – animal care
Mostly Mondays Poetry Society – literature
Older and Wiser Land Stewards (OWLS) – prairie restoration, environment River Valley Players – theater
River Valley Soccer Association – sports

River Valley Stitchers – quilting
Solstice Jazz Band – music
Spring Green Arts Coalition – arts
Spring Green Chamber of Commerce – business
Spring Green EMT – emergency preparedness, medical care Spring Green Historical Society – history

Spring Green Food Pantry – food scarcity
Spring Green Film Club – films
Spring Green Lions Club – community service and citizenship Spring Green Literary festival – literature
Stitch’n Bitch – needlework
Veterans for Peace – peace advocacy

There are also 8 associations specifically designed to engage youth: Girls Scout Troop 669 – citizenship
Cub Scout Pack No. 38 – citizenship
Future Farmers of America – agricultural management and citizenship River Valley Youth Football Club – sports

High School Madrigal Choir and Jazz Vocal Group – music
High School Senior Service Learning Class – community service, citizenship Skills U.S.A. – mechanical skills
Spring Green Dolphins – sports

There are also 4 church associations that provide numerous learning opportunities for their members, including young people:
Christ Lutheran Church
Cornerstone Church

Community Church Catholic Church

The total is 35 associations providing diverse learning opportunities. Paradoxically, practically none of the 23 non-youth/non-church associations have youthful members such as teenagers. This lack of a relationship results in several losses:

  1. The loss of valuable learning opportunities for young people.
  2. The establishment of productive relationships between young people and adults

    in the community.

  3. The loss of energetic contributions that young people could make to the life of

    the association.

  4. The loss of the learnings that the adults in the associations would acquire from the young people with different perspectives.

There is an open field for creative invention in civic life if associations could be inspired to begin to incorporate people in their organizations who are under 18 years of age.

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Who Represents the Neighbor? (Learning Ten)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

One way of understanding who represents a neighbor is their elected representative. Nonetheless, there are other neighborhood groups and associations that claim they also represent the neighbors.

In the fifties, sixties and seventies, the then Mayor Daley in Chicago was the leader of the municipal government and of the city’s Democratic Party. The Party was organized with Precinct Captains at the most local level, then Ward Committeemen at the ward level. These Captains and Committeemen traditionally held jobs in the government and acted together as a part of what was popularly known as “the Machine.” Mayor Daley believed that the neighbors were represented by the local party officials and their elected alderperson. He was unsympathetic with the idea of an independent neighborhood organization. When he or his organization were challenged by various kinds of neighborhood groups, he often responded by saying, “Who do you represent? We have a neighborhood organization with Precinct Captains, Ward Committeemen and the Alderperson. They really represent the neighborhood because they were chosen in an official election available to all the residents in the neighborhood. You don’t really represent the neighborhood because you don’t involve everybody.”

The Mayor’s challenge to the representativeness of local neighborhood associations focused on breadth of participation. In practice, these associations tend to take three forms:

  1. An organization historically created by a few neighbors that assigned themselves the name “Neighborhood Association.” These associations typically meet monthly at a public location and anyone in the neighborhood can attend. Quite frequently, these meetings involve twenty people in a neighborhood of 35,000 residents. Rarely would even 100th of the residents appear.
  2. An association with a constituency base of block clubs. Early in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, there was an aspiration to have a block club organized in every block in the neighborhood. However, the experience was that to organize and support these block clubs was far too demanding in terms of funding and organizing personnel. This form could be significantly representative, but it’s resource demand is so great that there are very few places today where a block club neighborhood association involves all or even most of the blocks.
  3. 3. Saul Alinsky introduced a form of neighborhood association that is primarily based on creating an association of associations. The goal was to engage the leadership of local associations from sports leagues to veteran’s organizations to women’s groups to churches. It was his view that if you could get large numbers of local associations organized into one neighborhood association, you would have the greatest non-governmental possibility of being widely representative. He trained neighborhood organizers to identify local associations and to bring them together into a group that could claim to be the voice of the neighborhood. In fact, once again the resource problem limited Alinsky’s aspirations. To identify and engage fifty to one hundred local associations in one umbrella group requires talented organizers consistently engaged in creating and maintaining the alliance. Therefore, the association of associations began to atrophy because of the resource issues. The result is that today’s Alinsky organizations are usually composed, in the main, of local churches. In fact, “churched based organizing” is now the dominant form of Alinsky based neighborhood groups.

It’s obvious that none of these forms of neighborhood association could claim to officially “represent” the neighborhood as does Mayor Daley’s electoral system. However, the actual participation in the electoral system at the municipal level is never very high and may, in actual numbers, engage no more people than the best neighborhood organizations can engage.

Another way of comparing associational with electoral representation is to think about the functions that each may distinctively be able to preform. Associations whose members are individual residents provide unmediated opportunities to define personal concern and interests. They provide the important opportunity to be heard –to “tell it like it is.” Many people value a public forum where they give voice to their unique perspective. Collective action in response to their concern may be less important than the platform to express their concern. Because of the uniqueness of each individual voice, it is often difficult for these kinds of associations to reach a common position.

Another function of the individualized neighborhood associations is often to provide a vehicle for an unrepresentative few to have an inordinately powerful voice outside the neighborhood. This most often happens when the participants are home owners magnifying their voice, often at the expense of renters. These kinds of neighborhood groups usually defend their public positions by noting that their meetings are open to all.

Neighborhood organizations whose members are block clubs implicitly are space based, as are our elected units. They assume a geographic identity as the source of their authority. The very fact that a physical block is the unit of representation creates a local collective decision making process at the block and neighborhood level. These two levels of collective decision-making incentivize positions that represent the greatest common good. Because the best of these groups are structurally universal and informed by local discourse, they may be more “representative” of the neighborhood interest than the positions of a partisan elected official.

The third form of neighborhood organization is the “association of associations.“ Here the collective decisions are made by a coalition of special interest groups, i.e. sports leagues, gardening clubs, veteran’s organizations, churches, cause groups, men’s and women’s organizations, etc. This form implicitly creates an organization of many collective interests rather than geographic or individual interests. These “associations of associations” have no locus of commonality based on space/residence. Therefore, it is much more difficult for them to cohere as a group. Nonetheless, their diversity of interest can be their strength because they bring to the table concerns that, in the aggregate, create a wholistic agenda with prospects of a much broader set of policies and actions. For example, the various associations bring to the table, diverse assets:

  • Sports leagues – health, youth
  • Artistic groups – culture, creativity, economy
  • Merchant organizations – local markets and jobs
  • Environmental groups – recycling, energy conservation
  • Youth groups – safety, vocation, citizen preparation
  • Veteran’s groups – children learning citizenship
  • Men’s and Women’s groups – family support, youth opportunities
  • Gardening groups – health, local economy

Many of these special associational interests are recognized by most as for the common good–diverse issues around which they can cohere.

A functional analysis of the public benefits of these various forms of association suggests that each has a valuable and distinctive role. In sum, all three provide unique collective means of achieving the common good.

The basic dilemma of our era is the continuing decline of the prevalence and influence of all three forms. The dilemma is magnified by the decline of belief in and support for the electoral means of achieving the common good.

For those interested in how to enhance citizen participation, the first question may be, whether that can be done if our vehicles for achieving the common good are weak. What can revive or replace these vehicles? We need to search for and support associational actors and inventors. For, as Tocqueville ‘said,’ “In democratic countries the science of associations is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made.”

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Re-functioning: A New Community Development Strategy for the Future (Learning Nine)

John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

Jamie Vollmer has written a landmark book titled, Schools Cannot Do It Alone (Enlightenment Press, 2010). In his book, he has documented the following new functions that have been undertaken by public schools since 1900:

From 1900 to 1910, we shifted to our public schools responsibilities related to:

  • Nutrition
  • Immunization
  • Health (Activities in the health arena multiply every year.)

    From 1910-1930, we added:

  • Physical education (including organized athletics)
  • The Practical Arts/Domestic Science/Home economics (including sewing and


  • Vocational education (including industrial agricultural education)
  • Mandated school transportation

    In the 1940’s, we added:

  • Business education (including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping)
  • Art and music
  • Speech and drama
  • Half-day kindergarten
  • School lunch programs (We take this for granted today, but it was a huge step to

    shift to the schools the job of feeding America’s children one third of their daily meals.)

    In the 1950’s, we added:

  • Expanded science and math education
  • Safety education
  • Driver’s education
  • Expanded music and art education
  • Stronger foreign language requirements
  • Sex education (Topics continue to escalate.)

In the 1960’s, we added:

  • Advanced Placement programs
  • Head Start
  • Title I
  • Adult education
  • Consumer education (resources, rights and responsibilities)
  • Career education (options and entry level skill requirements)
  • Peace, leisure, and recreation education [Loved those sixties.]

    In the 1970’s, the breakup of the American family accelerated, and we added:

  • Drug and alcohol abuse education
  • Parenting education (techniques and tools for healthy parenting)
  • Behavior adjustment classes (including classroom and communication skills)
  • Character education
  • Special education (mandated by federal government)
  • Title IX programs (greatly expanded athletic programs for girls)
  • Environmental education
  • Women’s studies
  • African-American heritage education
  • School breakfast programs (Now some schools feed America’s children two-

    thirds of their daily meals throughout the school year and all summer. Sadly, these are the only decent meals some children receive.)

    In the 1980’s the floodgates opened, and we added:

  • Keyboarding and computer education
  • Global education
  • Multicultural/Ethnic education
  • Nonsexist education
  • English-as-a-second- language and bilingual education
  • Teen pregnancy awareness
  • Hispanic heritage education
  • Early childhood education
  • Jump Start, Early Start, Even Start, and Prime Start
  • Full-day kindergarten
  • Preschool programs for children at risk
  • After-school programs for children of working parents
  • Alternative education in all its forms
  • Stranger/danger education
  • Antismoking education
  • Sexual abuse prevention education
  • Expanded health and psychological services
  • Child abuse monitoring (a legal requirement for all teachers)

In the 1990’s, we added:

  • Conflict resolution and peer mediation
  • HIV/AIDS education
  • CPR training
  • Death education
  • America 2000 initiatives (Republican)
  • Inclusion
  • Expanded computer and internet education
  • Distance learning
  • Tech Prep and School to Work programs
  • Technical Adequacy Assessment
  • Post-secondary enrollment options
  • Concurrent enrollment options
  • Goals 2000 initiatives (Democrat)
  • Expanded Talented and Gifted opportunities
  • At risk and dropout prevention
  • Homeless education (including causes and effects on children)
  • Gang education (urban centers)
  • Service learning
  • Bus safety, bicycle safety, gun safety, and water safety education

    In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we have added:

  • No Child Left Behind (Republican)
  • Bully prevention
  • Anti-harassment policies (gender, race, religion, or national origin)
  • Expanded early childcare and wrap around programs
  • Elevator and escalator safety instruction
  • Body Mass Index evaluation (obesity monitoring)
  • Organ donor education and awareness programs
  • Personal financial literacy
  • Entrepreneurial and innovation skills development
  • Media literacy development
  • Contextual learning skill development
  • Health and wellness programs
  • Race to the Top (Democrat)

    This research indicates that at least ninety-five new functions have been assumed by public schools and that the increase in these new functions has accelerated since the 1980’s. Some of these functions are innovations that were created within school systems. However, most of them are functions that were once performed outside of the systems-especially in local communities.

This transfer of community functions to the schools has had two negative effects on schools. First, teachers have been asked to add topics to their pedagogy for which they have no training. Second, the growing number of new topics has burdened the classroom teacher with more responsibilities than can possibly be fulfilled. The result is often frustrated and overloaded teachers who have less and less time to teach the basic topics for which they were trained.

The transfer of community functions to the schools has also had two negative effects upon local communities. The first is that because the schools have been structurally unable to fulfill many of the functions once performed in the neighborhood, there have been an increasing number of unsolved neighborhood problems. Second, communities, neighborhoods and local residents have also lost the competence to collectively perform their essential functions. This lost knowledge of how a competent citizenry performs its unique community functions is displaced and paradoxically, citizens become frustrated because schools can’t solve the problems that their own communities once resolved.

This transfer of community functions to institutions is not limited to the schools. Indeed, it is a phenomenon that has occurred in many other institutions.

For example, the responsibility and capacity to deal with neighborhood security has been transferred to police systems. Paradoxically, the superintendents of most major police departments now say that the “crime” problem cannot be solved without community engagement. In some cases, police departments have even created units that organize neighbors into “block watch” – a group of local residents relearning how they can use their collective power to be more secure.

While “block watch” is a commendable effort by police systems to transfer some of the security functions back to the local community, the overall trend is to invest in more police rather than more refunctioning of communities. As a result, in many cities neighborhood security has declined while police power has increased.

Almost all the leaders of the medical establishment agree that the primary source of good health is in the local community. They point to individual behavior, associational life, the physical environment and economic status as the major health determinants. However, they have no control over any of them because these determinants are largely the work of local communities. Nonetheless, many local residents now believe that the medical care system is the primary source of health and that their wellbeing is primarily created in a hospital.

Local governments have professionalized, developing management skills while using more technology. As their capacities have grown, local residents have shifted from being productive local citizens to becoming advocates for the government to solve all their problems. In some local governments, there has been an effort to maximize citizen participation, but this activity largely culminates in new responsibilities and function for local government rather than re-functioning neighborhoods.

As the corporatization of food production and distribution has blossomed, the capacity to produce food locally has diminished. The once common backyard garden disappeared. Recently, a hopeful, burgeoning movement to produce local food has emerged across the nation creating the first bloom of a re-functioning of the source of nourishment.

This history of institutions assuming community functions is a major cause of community dysfunction. Its consequence is expressed in the growing isolation of neighbors, one from another. It is also expressed in the decline of local associational life that was documented by Robert Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone. Together, these two declines have dissolved the basic social fabric that is the primary resource for productive, functional civic engagement.

The functions where collective citizen productivity can reclaim neighbor well being and problem solving include:

  1. Safety
  2. Health
  3. Enterprise
  4. Food
  5. Ecology
  6. Children
  7. Care (not service)

In redefining the functions of neighborhoods, these seven domains are the development agenda for the future. What collective, local citizen action can enhance these domains? What policies and action of institutions and funders can support, rather than displace, these productive citizen capacities?

In this new development strategy, it is important to recognize the secondary benefits. As new relationships develop locally in order to create a competent community, the neighbors are building a bank of social capital. They are also creating a culture supporting the presumption of citizen capacity rather than citizens being merely consumers of institutional outputs. Also, the relationships growing out of community work will often necessarily cross, dividing lines of age, race, ethnicity, gender, etc. And finally, this collective citizen productivity creates a new sense of efficacy and self-worth among the participating individuals.

While it takes a village to raise a child, our current dilemma is the lack of village. Therefore, the first step in creating a village is to relocate functions that have made so many neighborhoods powerless and unproductive.

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A Neighborhood Impact Statement: Changing the Burden of Proof (Learning Eight)

John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Senior Associate, Kettering Foundation

There has been a great deal of effort to persuade local institutions to reach out to the local citizenry and to engage them in participating in decision-making. This process usually leaves the decision as to which decisions citizens should be involved in to the institutional actor. The local citizenry is responding to the institutional agenda. This process usually leaves the decision as to which decisions citizens should be engaged in to the institutions. Citizens are responders rather than definers, advisors rather than deciders.

An alternative could be the development of a Neighborhood Impact Statement modeled on Environmental Impact Statements. The Environmental Impact Statement places the burden of proof on the outside intervener. The intervention into the natural environment must be tested against a set of standards. The assumption is that to intervene in the natural environmental order, institutions must prove in advance the nature of the impacts of their proposals.

Similarly, the neighborhood is a social environment where the proposed institutional intervener should have to demonstrate in advance positive impacts measured against local community standards. Instead of the local citizenry having to depend on institutional decisions as to those questions for engagement, the burden of proof would be shifted so that citizen standards would be the given and the institutional impacts would be assessed against them.

A Neighborhood Impact Statement could be developed by a coalition of neighborhood associations. They would define the areas of potential impact and the standards to be used to evaluate the impact.

One possible method of developing a statement would be to focus on the three major kinds of intervening institutions – businesses, not-for-profits and government. For each of these, a set of values and standards could be created by the local citizen coalition.

A beginning example of possibilities might be:


  1. What will be the effects of the intervention on exiting local enterprises?
  2. Effects on local employment as well as new jobs
  3. Effects on public social life
  4. Effects on the physical environment
  5. Effects on local newspapers and community based media


  1. Will the initiative replace or support neighborhood functions?
  2. Will the intervention enhance local jobs and enterprises?
  3. Will local citizens have the final decision regarding the intervention?
  4. Will the intervention identify and utilize local assets?


  1. What will the job and enterprise impacts be?
  2. Will the intervention increase capacity of citizens to preform functions?
  3. Will citizens have the power to veto the intervention?

This is a limited “starter” list of neighborhood values and issues related to proposed interventions of institutions. The key to developing an effective Neighborhood Impact Statement is that it be developed by neighbors at the block level where effects on family and the local social contract is experienced. An overarching question might be, does this intervention enhance the capacity of local residents to perform functions that are the basis for wellbeing.

One measure of the effectiveness of a Neighborhood Impact Statement would be its effect on the status and functions of local residents. A continuum that defines local citizen power and status is this sequence:

Most Powerful






Least Powerful

Traditional engagement initiatives assume the preferred status of neighbors is as client/consumer and advisor. These forms of engagement do not involve neighbors as decider/producer. Therefore, they are actually not citizen engagement because the resident has none of the basic powers of a citizen.

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Institutional Precipitation (Learning Seven)

By John McKnight
Co-founder, Asset-Based Community Development Institute Northwestern University

It’s my understanding that in chemistry, a precipitant is a reagent that produces a reaction of which it is not a part. It is analogous to one form of institutional action in relationship to a local neighborhood.

Most neighborhood focused institutional actions involve introducing a substantive program that serves the interests of the institutions, Therefore, the people in the neighborhood are not involved in determining what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, these three activities are critical if neighbors are to act as citizens defining and producing the future.

There is one possibility for institutions to enable citizen action if they can be a precipitant rather than a programmatic intervener. A precipitating action would avoid defining for neighbors what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it. However, it could act to precipitate citizens performing these three actions.

Two examples of institutional precipitation are:
1. Grants to Blocks
In Savannah, Georgia, the assistant city manager sent a letter to every household in the lowest income neighborhood in the city. The letter indicated that the city

appreciated the community building efforts of neighborhood people and wanted to support those efforts wherever possible. It said that if the local resident wanted to do something that would improve life on their block, the city was prepared to provide any funding that might help their effort- up to $100. The resident was asked to send a one-page letter describing what they wanted to do and to identify at least two other residents that would join in implementation.

In the first year, 85 residents sent in a letter with their proposal and all were funded. The result of sending these letters each year had a cumulative effect that clearly transformed the neighborhood.

The assistant city manager developed ways to celebrate these initiatives and he realized that the people who were signing the letters of proposal were the real leaders in the neighborhood.

This entire process is described in our publication, City-Sponsored Community Building: Savannah’s Grants for Blocks Story by Deborah Puntenney and Henry Moore (1998). We will send you both copies.

2. Idea Jam
In a neighborhood in Vancouver, Canada, a local settlement house publicized what they called an “Idea Jam.” It invited any resident in the neighborhood to come to a

gathering with an idea about how the neighbors working together could make the neighborhood better. At the event, the admission fee was having an idea for neighborhood improvement. The participants came together in various groups to discuss the ideas, how they might be implemented and who would be involved. Then they formed teams to implement the initiatives.

In both cases, institutions precipitated significant citizen action without intervening substantively. These two examples could provide a stimulus for the identification of other institutionally precipitated actions. These kinds of actions could then be described as case studies and used in training institutions on how they might take a different approach to the support of neighborhoods.

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What Counts? (Learning Six)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset Based Community Development Institute

It’s useful to conceptualize what counts as a means of evaluation. Counting is a limited tool. It doesn’t really help much in determining whether there are new friendships and a web of mutual support creating a culture of interdependence, the goal of asset-based neighborhood organizing. Nonetheless, in understanding whether door-to-door asset- based organizing is fruitful, there are ways of counting things that provide useful, if limited, feedback that is satisfying to people who know by numbers. For of these numeric methods are:

1. Connections and Social Capital
The first step in utilizing the information from neighborhood questionnaires or community conversations is to establish connections. These could be:

  • One to one relationships.
  • More than two people being connected in a new association.
  • Individuals being connected to an existing association.
  • Individuals being connected to local institutions.

Each of these types of relationships can be counted and this information used to demonstrate “social capital.” Social capital is widely recognized as a major factor in all forms of well-being — health, security, knowledge, economy, etc. Robert Putnam, in his famous book called Bowling Alone spells out the many benefits of social capital. It’s worth looking at his chapters.

2. Action Outcomes
Many institutional and funding leaders are more interested in “outcomes” than they are in the increase in social capital. They want to know what happened as a direct result of the connections. In order to document these outcomes, it’s necessary to follow-up on each outcome so that the actions can be identified and quantified. For example, if the action of five relationships could be classified as promoting health, then we reach the level of generalization that is of greatest interest to most institutional people. We can say that the connections in the neighborhood show evidence of actions that produce health and it is “evidence based” activity.

3. Attitude Change
Connections and actions may result in a change in attitude by participants
and neighbors regarding the significance of the neighborhood. It is possible to measure attitude change by asking a series of questions at the beginning of an initiative and then following up within a year or so, asking the same questions to determine whether there has been a change. One measure of attitude change is called the “Sense of Community Index.” The responses to its questions can be counted up demonstrating the amount of change in attitude and the nature of that change.

4. Community Participation
One result of the connective process has been greater attendance at the meetings of the local neighborhood associations as well as greater presence at the meetings of city council or its committees. This increase may be difficult to count, but the observation of the officials chairing these meetings can be useful in demonstrating more participation in local democracy.

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In Search of the Tie That Binds (Learning Five)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset Based Community Development Institute Northwestern University

One way of classifying associations is in terms of whether or not they are space-bounded. The greatest number of associations are not space-bound. However, our focus has been upon those associations where a neighborhood or small town provides the boundaries of our associational concern.

Most of the associations that are not space bound are based on affinity. They draw from a broad constituency of people with a common interest. The tie that binds them is their mutual interest and passion rather than the people next door.

The situation of associations bounded by space is quite different. Just because I live next door to several people does not mean that I see any basic affinity. So what is the tie that binds people on a block?

In recent years when I have met with a group interested in neighborhoods, I often ask the participants to identify whether they are over fifty. Then I ask them to describe their childhood experience in their neighborhood. The story is unusually common. Their story tells about how acceptable behavior was enforced and how they learned from and were supported by neighbors on the block. Then I ask people under 35 to describe their childhood experiences on their block. Their response is almost universally that the story the over fifty’s told was not their story. They don’t see the block as a point of primary relations because they were raised institutionally by outside systems. They usually add that in their adult life they know very few of their neighbors.

An important question for people interested in collective/communal decision making, is what happened to the common relationships of only two generations ago? How did most North Americans in a very short period of time become isolated in space? (One aspect of this phenomena is, of course, what Bob Putnam was reporting in Bowling Alone).

The over fifty story tells us that people in a local place were in significant common
relationships. One reason is that they saw these relationships as necessary in order to fulfill their needs. In some ways, the relational local network was a safety net. It must be that our current neighborhood isolation is the result of people not seeing that they need each other– otherwise they would connect with each other. It is my hypothesis that the generational change in the neighborhood story results from the rapid transformation of local citizen producers to resident consumers. Today, people on a block see their needs being met by access to the marketplace, professionals and public programs. This process was magnified by the fact that neighbors who are women entered the marketplace and so the powerful daily presence of

adults disappeared. Therefore, the only residual manifestation of the old community is the annual block party.

I may lack vision, but I don’t think we can go back to the old neighborhood. If being a neighbor is to once again become meaningful, I think we are going to have to discover how to create a new way.

It is in this context of discovering new ways that I think we’ve been engaged in our relationship with the Kettering Foundation. In particular, I think we have discovered two new approaches to create ties that bind, enhancing both citizen productivity and decision-making.

The first is the initiatives convened by Kettering that has been named Asset-Based Neighborhood Organizing. This approach to isolated neighbors assumes that while people may not sense they need each other, each of them looks upon him or herself as endowed with gifts, skills, passions and knowledge that gives them their sense of personhood and value. However, there is no local structure or process that calls upon local residents to contribute these assets to their neighbors. The asset-based organizing process inspires local neighbors to identify their assets. It then invites the neighbors to contribute their assets by connecting with others who value the same attributes. The result is the creation of new affinity groups at the neighborhood level. These affinities are always building local social capital, initiating creative activity and providing a means for solving local problems. In sum, it reverses the consumer trend and calls for the productive possibilities of relationships on the block. It reveals why we need our neighbors, but it starts with what we can contribute which is always self-satisfying and empowering.

This approach is now being tested in neighborhoods in Edmonton, Vancouver, West Palm Beach and Appleton. It provides a fantastic continuing learning opportunity.

The second initiative is the one that we identified through the Nebraska Community Foundation. For three years I have joined our faculty in working with that organization as it increases the decision making power in small communities.

The NCF has precipitated small groups of local citizens who have taken on the responsibility to approach local residents of some wealth and to ask them to contribute to a fund to support the future of their small hometown. In many towns this method has created a substantial endowment for the community’s well-being. Once the local fund has begun to generate substantial income, the local funding group is faced with a task that is not fundraising—how should the money be spent to enhance the future of our small town? In many of these towns, the result is creating various methods of citizen engagement that creates a vision and guides the use of the money based upon the popular decision-making. The incredible thing is that the NCF has been so effective at precipitating these local groups that there are more than 250 of them, at least half in towns under 700 people. And at this point, they are a wonderful peer learning group of towns where new ideas come from effective local experiments rather that top down programs.

Conceptually, it is especially significant to learn that they are creating and then occupying the civic space in the community that is not filled by the town government. The space they fill is decision-making and investing for the future. I can now see how time limited how local governments are in the span of their decision-making. Everything is immediate and short term. There is no citizen vehicle to identify assets beyond public budgets and to make decisions about their allocation. I think that these local groups are a major invention and we will continue to follow their development and work with Kettering on helping others learn about the process.

One way of defining a citizen is a person who has the collective power to create a vision and the means to be the producer of that vision. The Nebraska experiment is creating a new means for visioning. The Asset approach is creating a new means for being productive. Each way is an experiment in creating local ties that bind. Prospectively, both ways could be synthesized.


In the broadest sense, what is ahead for me is understanding more and more about the possible new ties that bind—when they happen, how they happen and why.

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Embracing Deviance (Learning Four)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset Based Community Development Institute

One of the unfortunate results of assigning responsibility for marginal people to institutions and professionals is that citizens lose their capacity to incorporate marginal people. Over the years, I’ve observed an increasing intolerance for marginal people in a neighborhood. We say they “need professional help” and send them elsewhere. This, of course, increases the homogeneity and like -mindedness of people in a neighborhood.

An interesting question is how we could increase the tolerance of local people for people they consider deviant. By deviant, I mean, in particular, people with labels such as developmentally disabled, mentally ill, physically disabled, single welfare mothers, gay and lesbian people, people of different ethnicities and races, drug users, etc. While each of these is clearly a distinctive group of labeled people, what I’ve seen to be most common is that people do not know them personally. They see them through the lens of the label.

One thing I have learned in our work is how efforts to include developmentally disabled people have worked. The guiding principle is to never aggregate people with the same label in the community. The institutional aggregation of developmentally disabled people evokes the label rather than the individual capacity. The very successful efforts to introduce these people into some aspect of community life have depended upon their being connected individually around their capacities, gifts, skills, etc. The principle effect of labeling is, of course, to de-individualize human beings. The primary connectedness at the community level is essentially personal and individual.

There may be an important learning here as to methods that include rather than exclude at the local level. It would be interesting to have a collection of case studies and stories about how individuals from all these labeled categories have contributed to the life of the community through their individual gifts. A starting point might be to review the literature of the Inclusion Press that is exclusively dedicated to methods for including people who are called mentally or physically disabled.

The current concern about diversity might better be defined as a concern with exclusion of labeled people. The greatest diversity in any local community is the gifts that the members have. If we focus on the gifts of everyone, then this valuable asset may be more effective in overcoming exclusion than efforts to talk about our categorical differences.

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The Affinity Dilemma (Learning Three)

By John McKnight
Co-Director, Asset Based Community Development Institute

The essence of most associational groups is that they are composed of a group of people who care about each other and/or the same thing. By its very nature, this affinity creates outsiders. For example, a voluntary association of Cook County Labrador Retriever Owners creates affective relationships between these dog owners while also excluding owners of poodles. This is a reality and not a “problem” to be fixed. Because of these affinity-based associations, they tend to be parochial and exclusive. This orientation doesn’t foster openness to others. In fact, their affinity is not enhancing diversity.

A friend of mine believes that the heart of our social problems is “like-mindedness.” If he’s right, the nature of associational affinity is one cause of the problem.

One way that I have seen that partially deals with the affinity dilemma is the creation of a local association of associations. This creates all kinds of new and “different- mindedness” connections. I don’t have a lot of examples of such an association of associations. However, the clearest implementation of this method was the original approach of Saul Alinsky. He was a Tocquevillian and taught his organizers to get as many associations as possible together in their neighborhood organization so that it would be broadly representative of the community. Unfortunately, his methodology has deteriorated in recent years becoming “church based organizing” where the structure is built on five to ten local churches and their pastors. I think the reason for this is that it is very difficult to bring together forty associations. However, among the forty are the churches and they are the one association that has money. In order to pay an organizer, you need local money that can’t be controlled by outsiders. Five to ten churches can contribute enough to sustain an organizer. But, the resulting organization doesn’t promote wide engagement and the opportunity for “different mindedness.”

It might be useful to have a Kettering gathering on the local examples/possibilities of “different mindedness” which may be the way serious citizen dialogue can develop in relatively homogeneous places.

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